Small ball has taken on a whole new meaning in Phoenix, where the Suns are showcasing three floor leaders (sometimes at once). Trendsetting or excessive? Consider their rivals curious
This is an article from the Nov. 24, 2014 issue
FOR 30 YEARS Marinko Dragic taught the sons and daughters of Ljubljana, Slovenia, how to drive. They came to him when they turned 17 and plopped down behind the wheel of his old Mercedes A-Class. The hatchback is dually controlled, so Marinko could occupy the passenger's seat and still slam the brakes when a heavy-footed teen got tempted by a yellow light. Navigating Slovenia's capital city is daunting, with its jumble of arcane traffic signs and narrow one-way streets. "You need 30 hours of lessons," recalls Suns point guard Goran Dragic, the oldest of Marinko's two sons. "Those were the hardest 30 hours of my life." Goran put in more than the required time. He started driving when he was in middle school, through parking lots and down open roads, always in the A-Class and always with his dad. When Goran wanted to speed, Marinko pumped the brakes, and when he wanted to cruise, Marinko tapped the gas. Goran, never in an accident, grew up thinking of driving as a joint enterprise.
During his first 2½ NBA seasons, in Phoenix, Dragic backed up Steve Nash. During his next 1½, in Houston, he split duties with Kyle Lowry. When Dragic returned to the Suns as a full-time starter in 2012--13, he averaged career highs of 14.7 points and 7.4 assists, but it was not the joyride he anticipated. Dragic ran almost every pick-and-roll, maneuvered around nightly double teams and used the little wind he had left to chase whichever dervish was on the docket: Tony Parker or Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry or Chris Paul. Although Dragic held up admirably, the Suns finished last in the Western Conference with 57 losses and were left wondering if they could use more hands on the wheel.
Eighteen months later, Dragic bounds out of a breakfast meeting at the JW Marriott in Los Angeles, flanked by Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas. They stand, respectively, 6'3", 6'1" and 5'9", a downsized variation of a Big Three, embarking on a small-ball experiment not even Mike D'Antoni dared to try. Imagine a troika of hyperaggressive point guards directing the equivalent of a 48-minute fast break: catching outlet passes on either side of the court, initiating multiple pick-and-rolls in the same possession and alternating against the likes of Parker, Westbrook, Curry and Paul. Phoenix is betting that the best way to combat the league's legion of ballhandlers is to triple down on them. Over the summer the Suns accelerated the long-running Lilliputian revolution, buttressing Dragic by re-signing Bledsoe, adding Thomas and even spending a first-round pick on 6'3" Tyler Ennis of Syracuse. They wear jersey numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4, as though modeling the crowded depth chart.
Some have suggested that if the NBA were a 6'5"-and-under league, Phoenix would win the championship. But the ranks are still populated by giants, in short supply for the Suns, especially after losing power forward Channing Frye to Orlando in free agency. The team will scrap just to reach the playoffs, with all the floor generals struggling for ownership of the offense and control of the ball. The Suns are innovative. They are entertaining. Whether they are setting a trend or congesting a backcourt remains to be seen. But any Big Three, particularly one in miniature, needs time to grow. "We're doing something the NBA has never witnessed," Thomas says. "A few years ago nobody would have even thought about it."
THE HAND CHECK was eliminated in 1994, the forearm to a player facing the basket in '97 and contact above the free throw line in '99. The rule changes accomplished what the NBA intended, unlocking offenses, but the ramifications were wider than the league imagined. "Back in the day you could get into guys [defensively], guide them," says Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek. "All of a sudden you couldn't touch them, which is why everyone started running the pick-and-roll. It became almost impossible to defend." Point guards typically made the best triggermen because of their ability to angle around screens, attack the basket and dish to open shooters. The proliferation of the pick-and-roll spawned the glorification of the point guard.
On the night of the 2006 draft, the Celtics traded the seventh pick to the Trail Blazers for a package highlighted by point guard Sebastian Telfair. With Delonte West already on the roster, Boston appeared to have enough ballhandlers. But a 26-year-old Celtics scout named Ryan McDonough helped persuade his bosses to extract a late-first-round pick from Phoenix so they could grab one more point guard, Kentucky's Rajon Rondo. "It's so hard to defend those guys with all the screen-and-rolls," McDonough reasons. "If you don't have a good one, or two, you fall behind." In '06, Rondo was the first point guard chosen, at No. 21. In '07, Mike Conley went fourth. In '08, Derrick Rose went first and Westbrook fourth. In '09, five point guards went in the lottery. In '10, coach John Calipari put a point guard in the top five for the third straight year, No. 1 John Wall of Kentucky. "I want more!" jokes Calipari, who had yet another Wildcats point guard, Brandon Knight, drafted eighth in '11.
"You go through cycles in recruiting," says Orlando Antigua, a former Calipari assistant, who is now the coach at South Florida. "Sometimes there is an abundance of big guys. Sometimes it is wings. Lately it has been point guards."
Two popular brands of defense emerged to counter the dynamic drivers: the Chicago variety, which loads up as many as four players on the strong side, encouraging point guards to swing the ball, and the Miami version, which traps point guards, forcing them to find outlets. Teams with adept secondary ballhandlers, who can exploit collapsed defenses and run weakside pick-and-rolls, put themselves at an immense advantage. The 2011 Finals turned when the Mavericks inserted backup point guard J.J. Barea into the starting lineup with Jason Kidd. Dallas vanquished the Heat in the next three games.
Phoenix hired McDonough to be general manager in May 2013, and he immediately tabbed a coach intimately familiar with a dual-point-guard system. Hornacek ran the point at Iowa State and in the NBA with the Suns, until they acquired speed merchant Kevin Johnson from the Cavaliers. Hornacek, pushed to shooting guard, was confused and disappointed. But the move invigorated his team and enhanced his career. Phoenix scored close to 115 points per game, with Johnson sprinting down the court and kicking to the 6'4" Hornacek, who could rise up or drive on slower wings. He shared the memories with Dragic after McDonough swiped Bledsoe from the Clippers in July '13, leaving the incumbent ballhandler bewildered about his role.
The Suns turned the calendar back to the late '80s, going 23--11 with Dragic and Bledsoe in the starting lineup. Dragic fed Bledsoe when he drew an inferior defender. Bledsoe fed Dragic when he found a groove. Phoenix led the NBA in fast-break offense, but Bledsoe missed 39 games to injury and Dragic was hobbled by April. To sustain their two-point-guard assault, the Suns needed a third.
"Why?" Thomas asked, when McDonough invited the 25-year-old to Phoenix in early July for a free-agent visit. He was a scoring point guard who averaged 20.3 points and 6.3 assists last season for the Kings, almost identical to Dragic, much the same as Bledsoe. He didn't understand why a team would want three players with overlapping skills. Thomas was incredulous until a dinner with Suns brass, when McDonough told him, "Sorry we can't take you to Fish House Café." Fish House is Thomas's favorite restaurant back home in Tacoma, Wash. He is such a devotee that the logo is tattooed on his right arm. He was awed by the GM's research. Maybe they really do want me, he thought.
Hornacek laid out the specifics of the scheme: two point guards on the floor at most times, and occasionally three. A rebounder, instead of waiting under the basket for a designated ballhandler, fires to whichever one is closest. The point guards race down the court, preferably beating the defense or setting up on opposite sides so they can scramble the D with successive pick-and-rolls. Everybody stays fresh because minutes are limited, and nobody has to spend an entire quarter getting trucked by Westbrook or Rose. Thomas, who yearned for a regular starting spot in Sacramento during the past three years, agreed to come off the bench again.
Other teams feature multiple point guards, but they can't always flourish together. Ideally, one of the facilitators must shoot consistently from outside (like Dragic and Thomas) and one must be able to defend bigger opponents (like Bledsoe and Dragic). Phoenix used the entire triumvirate to close out a win over the Spurs on Halloween because Thomas could defend Parker while Bledsoe and Dragic rotated on Danny Green and Manu Ginóbili. A more imposing shooting guard or small forward can decimate the quirky alignment, as Gordon Hayward did 24 hours later in a Jazz victory.
"In this league, at this position, you get no breaks," says Lakers point guard Ronnie Price. "Every night you have issues. Against them it's more issues because you have three guys who can rush the ball up, and weakside pick-and-roll becomes just as dangerous as strongside pick-and-roll. But if you're asking whether it's going to work long term, I'm not sure anybody knows yet."
THOMAS WAS the 60th and final pick in 2011. "Too short," he says. "Mr. Irrelevant." Dragic was the 45th pick in '08. "Too skinny," he says. "Supposed to be back in Slovenia in a year." Bledsoe, the 18th pick in '10, didn't participate in organized basketball until seventh grade and was barely recruited until his senior season at Parker High in Birmingham. He played off the ball at Kentucky, in deference to Wall, as Thomas did at Washington, for Abdul Gaddy. But all the point guards happened upon a transformational tutor. Isiah Thomas took an interest in his near namesake, Nash mentored Dragic, and Paul groomed Bledsoe when he was still running fourth string for the Clippers.
They are flawed but fearless, charging at 7-footers with a strength that belies their size. Thomas creeps inside and unleashes a skyscraping floater. "That's the giant killer," he coos. Dragic mimics the Nash up-and-under and the Rondo ball fake, but also utilizes a move all his own, planting a knee in a defender's midsection to clear space at the rim. The 24-year-old Bledsoe doesn't need many tricks, having built his body into a bulldozer with a 6' 7½" wingspan, plowing the lane. "We go about our business differently," says Thomas, "but our story is basically the same."
Point guards, by nature, come with dominant personalities and control issues. They have spent a lifetime with the ball in their hands, and while they are willing to share it, they decide when and with whom. Plenty of classic teams depended on dual initiators—Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge for the '80s Celtics, Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe for the '70s Knicks. But DJ was always the floor general, and so was Clyde. That's where the Suns deviate. They don't have one general. They have three. "It can work," says Jerry Sichting, who played point guard for Boston in the '80s and is now a Phoenix assistant. "It just takes very smart and unselfish players."
The Suns' point guards are sacrificing stats—each was down at least three points per game from last season in the team's 5--5 start—and ceding control. On Nov. 4 against the Lakers, Bledsoe appeared grief-stricken after he played just 21 minutes and took four shots. The next day against the Grizzlies, Dragic clocked 26 minutes and nine shots. Two nights later against the Kings, Thomas logged 17 minutes with four shots. "Someone is always going to be left out," he acknowledged. Such is life in every organization, but coaches can placate a restless shooting guard by sliding him over to small forward for a few minutes, and vice versa. Hornacek's challenge is different. He can't exactly toss a second ball on the court.
"I love having two point guards," says a West scout. "I don't know about three. These are all tough-minded guys who want to be on the floor at the end and won't be happy if they're not." Twenty franchises, and maybe as many as 25, are content with their starting point guard. But Calipari and others keep churning out more. Perhaps the top prospect in the 2015 draft is an 18-year-old point guard from the Democratic Republic of the Congo named Emmanuel Mudiay, who is playing in China. If a club is set at point guard, does it pass on a playmaker like Mudiay or slot him next to its starter? Rivals are looking to the Suns for clues.
"What you're trying to do is mesh your best players," Calipari says. "I've used three centers at the same time because those were my best players. But the best team you can have is with two point guards, who have point guard mentalities and can score."
Phoenix has committed $70 million to Bledsoe and $27 million to Thomas, with the 28-year-old Dragic eligible to opt out of his contract in July. If the Suns run into point guard gridlock, they can always trade one or let Dragic walk. But if they stick with this rollicking three-man weave, they may change how lineups are viewed and call into question the essence of the off-guard. They seem to have made one compelling convert already. When Phoenix faced the Lakers in the preseason, Floyd Mayweather sat courtside at the Honda Center in Anaheim, jawing with Thomas and Bledsoe. After Thomas hit a buzzer beater to force overtime, Mayweather leaped from his seat, nearly spilling his caramel corn. After Thomas sank a three-pointer in OT, which helped put the Lakers away, Mayweather hollered at him, "I see you, IT, I see you!" Mayweather, who befriended Thomas several years ago, showed up at Staples Center the following evening for another eyeful.
The Suns are basketball welterweights, small and speedy, driven and daring. "I think Floyd," Thomas says, "is going to like watching us play."